Hello my dear fellow nomads of the mind! All you oddball eccentrics, apollonian introverts, linguistic mystics, messianic fantaseers. All you book worms, thought junkies, encyclopediacs and star blazers. All you freaks lost in the glare, manic philosophers, wild-eyed shamans and restless explorers of inner worlds.
Have you always been the “weird kid” in the group, looking in utter bewilderment at everyone as though it were all an absurdist piece of improvisational theatre? Have people often laughed at you for being lost in your “fantasy world of abstractions”? Have you been sternly reprimanded for floating somewhere in a galaxy far, far away from the “real” world?
Oh how sure they are of the realness of their reality!
But do not despair ye! The ideas, visions and memes you might one day pass on to humanity might long outlive the realness of your own reality, your children’s (if you make the mistake of making any) and anyone else alive today.
Keep in mind too that anti-intellectualism is one of the most consistent and universal characteristics of all totalitarian regimes. In his essay titled “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”, the semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco writes:
“Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism), from Hermann Goering’s fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” and “universities are nests of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.”
So yes, when someone – friend or foe – tells you that you’re being too intellectual/critical/abstract-minded, or simply not engaging in enough “action”, feel free to call them a Nazi. We young earnest undergrads, regardless of our political orientation, love calling anyone who doesn’t agree with us a Nazi, don’t we?
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizkek further elaborates on this point of action for action’s sake in an interview with Big Think:
“My advice would be, because I don’t have simple answers, two things. First, precisely to start thinking. Don’t get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure, ‘do something, let’s do it’ and so on. No, the time is to think. I even provoked some of my leftist friends when I told that if the famous Marxist formula – ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, the time is to change it’, thesis eleven on Feuerbach – that maybe today we should say in 20th century we tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking. Second thing, I’m not saying that if people are suffering and enduring horrible things that we should just sit and think. But we have to be very careful what we do… I always discern in this call to ‘do something’ a more ominous injunction: do it and don’t think too much. Today we need thinking.”
People suspicious of ideas like these, such as blogger Sotiris Triantis, rightly point out that this could be interpreted as an “anti-revolutionary thesis” which could lead to isolation from action, and that it is only through collective action that historical change has ever been made. He suggests the formula ‘First Think, Then Act’.
With that in mind, and as someone who much like Zizek was born into a country of failed revolutions, my reading of the 20th century and really of all empire building human history is this: It has been a perpetual nightmare of human hyperactivity. That proverbial nightmare from which we cannot awaken.
Invade, Colonize, Multiply! Build deadlier weapons, bigger armies, taller pyramids! Leave more progeny, amass more slaves, erect bigger monuments to celebrate our Glory, our Grandeur, our Power! … as the indifferent cosmos watches our ant colonies wither to dust under the silent sun.
I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that some aboriginal peoples of Australia believed their existential duty to be the keepers of the land upon which they lived. To leave it unperturbed once they passed through it. I’m suspicious of new agey Avatar-esque tendencies to idealize pre-civilizational societies as some sort of primordial Garden of Eden. I think such depictions are largely a projection of modernity’s anxiety onto the blank canvas of the “exotic other”. That said however, and if it is indeed true, maybe they were onto something there.
My utopia is not one where people made everything right, but rather where people simply aren’t. And if I must concede to some human presence in this vision of timeless silence, well, there they are, a few still figures in the distant background of the vast red desert, looking together mutely upon the infinite expanse of the universe.
The problem is this however: If peaceful, egalitarian, partnership-based cultures were once common, as many scholars such as Riane Eisler have claimed, a hyperactive dominator neighbour would eventually show up, brutally kill most of you off and force the rest of you into building their goddamn pyramids.
This is the irresolvable problem of every matrist make-love-not-war pacifist. Either we perish under the sword of the dominator, or we become like them in order to fight them. It is the tragedy of militarization and counter-militarization, which also in biology seems to parallel what is known as the Red Queen Effect. If you want to survive the other beasts, evolve bigger claws. And so on and on and on the rivers of blood and tears flow.
… as the indifferent cosmos watches on. It can wait till these rivers run dry some distant aeon. It has all of eternity at its disposal.
It seems to me that predation of this kind is built into the very essence of life and its evolution. Creation itself is a theatre of violence and destruction. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Dominate or be dominated. But if such predation is ubiquitous, so is cooperation, as Kropotkin eloquently demonstrated already well over a century ago. And so is empathy and care for one another.
We humans are the social “thinking” animal, trapped somewhere between killer, sadist, predator and the angel of affection and compassion. Half chimp, half bonobo, with a mind that can contemplate itself contemplating its origins and destiny. Maybe somewhere in this inner and outer struggle of conflicting modes of un/consciousness we can make a choice?
We think, therefore we (can) choose?
“Dream on, hippie bum!” I hear the hawks shriek up above from their gunpowder sky, “We were born of war, and through war we shall persevere!” I’m afraid to think it, but what if they’re right? Or even worse, what if they’re wrong, but humanity continues to run business as though they’re right until its last days?
But I digress.
What does any of this fetish for cerebrality have to do with our world today and all of its ongoing and looming catastrophes? I say “our world” and not “our country/culture/society” because I believe that we no longer can afford to think only locally and parochially, we’re all in each other’s backyards now.
With so many of us on the planet and in a time of technologies with more destructive power than ever, thorough thinking is indeed what we need most. It seems to me that our power to “do” has far outstripped our ability to contemplate and understand what it is we are doing. Even more so, it has outstripped our ability to empathize with those affected by our doing who are beyond the horizon of our immediate experience.
And here is my key point: To understand the consequences of our collective actions and to empathize with those affected by them, we have to be able to conceptualize the experiences of those out of view, and on a mass scale. This requires a high level of abstract mentation. Or in simpler terms, thinking.
We evolved into being highly social creatures that have the ability to imagine the mental states of others. This is known by cognitive scientists as Theory of Mind, meaning simply the ability to theorize about others’ minds. We are not unique in that regard. Non-human apes, elephants, dolphins and corvids (aka the crow family) can do it too, scientists tell us, among possible others. But what seems to differentiate us from them is the extent to which we are able to do it.
As far as we know today, humans are the only animals capable of imagining the feelings, thoughts and intentions of not only our own kind in our vicinity, but of sentient beings from entirely different species across time and space, far removed from us. We can even imagine the experiences of other beings in altogether different worlds, different modes and dimensions of existence, by staring into a book or at an abstract painting. Religion and superstition are probably a side effect of this ability. An unfortunate one, some may add.
Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher perhaps most famous for his pioneering work on animal rights, describes this as the expansion of our empathy circles. It is the process of including into our empathizing awareness more and more sentient beings of less and less similarity to us. And to do that, we have to develop our capacities to think and imagine to their maximum and beyond.
It is such considerations, among others, that bring me to the conclusion that more than ever today we need to think on an increasingly broad and far-reaching scale. Our actions, both as individuals and as societies, have increasingly potent impacts on our world and those who live in it. It is our unconsciousness, our blind unthinking, that propels entire nations into genocidal wars and other atrocities. We are a creature torn between reflexive fight-or-flight instincts and our equally evolved abilities to reason, to be universally compassionate; even dare I say it to love.
And it is I believe today and in the foreseeable future that our Nietzschean rope – the rope that holds us over the abyss between cruelty and love – is becoming more and more strained.
So what is the concrete role of the intellectual in all this? How can we nerds with all our grandiose ideas actually have an impact on this seemingly insurmountable tide of horror and suffering (and above all stupidity) on our beleaguered earth?
Before you throw yourself under a tank in some presumably noble but probably futile act of heroism (leave it to professional martyrs), remember that ideas, if they can take root, can radically transform the world. For good or ill, hence the tremendous responsibility to create and promote good ideas while subverting toxic ones.
Whatever form these ideas take, be they anything from scientific breakthroughs to portrayals of fictional universes, ideas steer the course of our journey now as much as geological forces. Paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin, along with his colleagues, went so far as to propose a theory about the emergence of a whole new planetary layer. He called it the “noosphere”, the sphere of thought, which much like the biosphere has now enveloped the earth as a higher order of evolutionary complexity.
“We are moving from unconscious evolution through natural selection to conscious evolution through choice,” futurist Barbara Max Hubbard once said. Ideas are the seeds of this choice. Like invisible strings they tie our messy chaotic realities into coherent meaningful wholes. And our work as imagineers, I believe, is to play these strings as though they were part of The Great Harp that reverberates across our planet the music of new possibilities.